Let the debate begin on which golfing encore is the greatest of our times.
Jack Nicklaus and “Yessir!” at the 1986 Masters at age 46?
Tiger Woods at the 2019 Masters?
The correct opinions, in order, are Nicklaus at No. 1, always and forever, because he won it with a sensational 30 on the closing nine. Woods is second because it was so unexpected after his back surgery, and his chess play over the closing six holes truly was masterful after the other contenders fell down in front of him, mostly at the par-3 12th. To his credit, Woods played smart and took the gift.
Third is Mickelson. The part about the other contenders falling apart before Woods aptly describes Mickelson’s final round at the PGA Championship. To Mickelson’s credit, he played smart, got it to the house and accepted an unexpected and historic gift.
You get bonus points for a possible fourth answer. Maybe this isn’t Mickelson’s encore moment. Maybe, just maybe, he can catch another unicorn in a bottle (mixed metaphor alert!) again.
After all, he just crushed Julius Boros’ mark as the oldest major champion of all time, by a wide margin. Boros was 48 years and 4 months. Mickelson is three weeks shy of 51.
After all, we all saw timeless Tom Watson nearly win the British Open at Turnberry at age 59. Age is just a state of mind, at least until those bionic body parts arrive and, regarding that … please hurry!
And after all, Mickelson still drops bombs. What other six-time-major-winning, almost-51-year-old hits it farther? The modern game is a power game. See Bryson DeChambeau for details if you’ve been marooned in Greenland for the past few years.
The curtain isn’t ready to drop on Mickelson now. Nicklaus thought he could win more majors after ’86, and he made a couple of runs. He didn’t win another major or regular PGA Tour event. Years later, he said jokingly, “If I’d been smart, I would have quit after 86.” Woods? We don’t know whether he’ll compete again in golf.
Mickelson just added a lot of new lines to the golf record book: Oldest major champion; longest gap, 16 years, between PGA Championship wins (previous mark was 13, by Raymond Floyd); first to win PGA Tour events 30 years apart (1991, Tucson Open as an amateur, and 2021 PGA); and his sixth major title.
“It’s very possible this is the last tournament I ever win,” Mickelson said afterward. “It’s also very possible I had a breakthrough in some of my focus and maybe I can go on a little bit of a run. The point is, there’s no reason I or anybody else can’t do it. It just takes a little more work.”
Only 11 men have won more professional majors than Mickelson, and this victory moved him into a tie with Lee Trevino and Nick Faldo. Food for Mickelson’s thought: One more major title and he joins Arnold Palmer, Harry Vardon, Bobby Jones, Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen, even more rarefied air.
Stop and thank your good fortune to have lived in the era of Woods and Mickelson. They were – are – special.
Phil remains indescribably Phil. He is unpredictable, inconsistent and tougher to catch than a handful of Jell-O in a zephyr. What Mickelson has going for him in the over-50 portion of his career is a Champions Tour where he can stay sharp and practice winning, as he did twice last year. And he still carries A Big Stick.
He worked hard the last few years, losing weight, gaining muscle and working on exercises to increase his clubhead speed. It added up to him being competitive on a big, sprawling, often scary golf course designed by Pete Dye, the late evil genius (in a good way). How many times did Mickelson outdrive runner-up Brooks Koepka in the final round? He’s still got 320-yard-plus bombs in his swing. That will give him more chances to win more majors if he’s able to stay healthy. His next chance will be next month at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego, his hometown, which he had been given a special exemption to play. Now – you can almost picture him grinning – he doesn’t need it.
“I believed I could play my best in majors, but until this week, I hadn’t proven it,” Mickelson said. “I could play well at Torrey Pines. I’ll go out there early and try to get sharp. It could very well be my last good opportunity, although I get five more now.”
As PGA champion, Mickelson gets five-year exemptions into all four majors, although he already has lifetime exemptions to the Masters and British Open as past champions.
It was an impressive week by Mickelson, who took advantage of a course that favored big hitters who found fairways, iron shots that had to be struck precisely due to conditions that were windy during three of the four rounds and players with great short games. When you miss a green at a Pete Dye golf course, you’re usually up Schitt’s Creek (an award-winning Canadian comedy series, not a vulgarly-named situation) without a paddle.
Mickelson’s short game remains one of the best of modern times, even if his putting looks a little stabby on occasion, the way a 51-year-old’s putting might look.
There will be a few things you’ll remember from his victory. One was how he blitzed the front nine Saturday with a 32 after previously blitzing the second nine Friday with a 31. He effectively shot a carry-over 63, which is how he vaulted into a share of the lead.
Another was the bunker shot he holed Sunday at the par-3 fifth. Mickelson already had bogeyed two of the first three holes in the final round, and survived a brief Mongolian Lead Reversal on the opening hole when he bogeyed and Koepka birdied. Koepka returned the favor with a double at the next hole.
Mickelson conceded that all he was trying to do from that bunker at No. 5 was get up and down and not let any more momentum slip away. He splashed the shot out perfectly, watched it take four small bounces and then run into the right center of the cup for an unlikely birdie.
You also should recall how Mickelson birdied the 10th hole from short range and suddenly held a four-shot lead. Note the word “insurmountable” is missing from that sentence. The Ocean Course is a penal track, and even one shot offline can spell disaster. Koepka and fellow pursuers Louis Oosthuizen and Kevin Streelman all suffered double bogeys. And also, Phil is Phil. We will now refer only to his disaster at Winged Foot in the 2006 U.S. Open in hushed tones.
Koepka, a four-time major winner who was expected to make short work of Mickelson in this final round and add a third PGA title to his collection, didn’t ultimately offer much of a challenge. He made a 7 on the second hole and, let’s face it, rarely does a major winner have a final-round 7 on the card. Koepka made one mistake after another: missed fairways, missed short putts and a few poor strategic decisions.
With a PGA on the line, Koepka shot 74. Louis Oosthuizen, who looked something like that Last Man Standing at the Alamo in the quest to catch Mickelson, didn’t really come all that close. He finished two back after throwing a 73 at Mickelson in the final round. Streelman put up 75. The players who charged were too far back – and not under any pressure, really. That’s how Shane Lowry and European Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington shot 69s and, shockingly, tied for fourth with Harry Higgs – yes, The Harry Higgs – and Paul Casey. (For scores, click here.)
Because Mickelson won, you can forget the colossal blunder that he made at the 13th hole, where, while protecting a lead, he over-faded an approach shot that got near the green’s left side – an absolute no-go zone – and sent it dribbling over the edge and into the hazard. It cost him a bogey, but the ineffective Koepka also made bogey there. No blood, no foul.
Finally, you should remember the chaos around the final hole. The PGA of America completely lost control of the gallery. You know it was bad when even CBS host Jim “Captain Sunshine” Nantz said as much on the air, and CBS’ on-the-ground analyst Dottie Pepper echoed her agreement.
When Woods won the Tour Championship in Atlanta in 2018, his first victory in ages, it was a memorable scene when fans swarmed the fairway and followed him toward the green, walking behind him. When Mickelson and Koepka headed toward the green after their approach shots, the crowd already had beaten them to the green. Fans and, yes, even certain rules-breaking media members were frolicking out in the fairway. Only with security escorts were both players, caddies and officials able to jostle their way through.
“It was a little unnerving,” Mickelson said later. It also was a little scary, briefly.
Count on television to condense this victory to two scenes: Mickelson holing that bunker shot, raising his wedge over his head with his right hand and then pumping his left fist, and the raucous gallery galloping amok at 18.
If this truly proves to be Mickelson’s encore moment, it was a hell of an encore. If it wasn’t, it was a hell of a moment.
So, what is next, Phil?
More Morning Read Sunday coverage from 2021 PGA Championship:
Phil Mickelson wins PGA -- is this his greatest thrill?
Mickelson adds to his legend with 6th major, 2nd PGA
Runners-up lament what might've been
List of oldest major champions now begins with Phil
Photos: A Sunday like no other at Kiawah
Final purse, prize money and payouts from 2021 PGA Championship
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